Friday, 28 September 2012

The Naming of Things

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: The naming of things is a difficult matter, it isn't just one of your holiday games. A fictional world can be massively enhanced by good, consistent naming or ruined when the names of things just don't seem to fit. I'm not just talking about character names here, but every noun describing something your characters need to interact with. In a contemporary setting, this may be limited to company/brand names, fictional book titles, songs, TV programmes etc. In a science fiction or fantasy setting, the naming opportunity may extend to everything in the world!

I will freely admit to making a rod for my own back when it comes to choosing names. Just this week, I've been unable to move forward with a rewrite of my latest book until I worked out new names for my two main characters and (more importantly) nicknames that both made sense and fitted thematically with the world I'm trying to evoke. I also came up with three fictional brand names and a company slogan into the bargain. So this seemed like a good time to discuss what I think is most important about naming (as ever, your results may vary). Here is a list - in no particular order - of considerations I have when choosing a name for something:
  • Sound – Of course, the sound of all language is important, but with names it's especially key to me how the word or phrase trips off the tongue. Whether I want it to be easy or difficult to say, depends on the context – is this character a whimsical Professor Dumbledore or a no-nonsense Jack Reacher? I find myself terribly drawn to alliteration when naming things, and I think this is related to the pleasing sound it makes. Well, pleasing to me, anyway.
  • Subtext – So much about class, ethnicity, attitude and environment can be expressed by the choice of a name. Sir Stanley de Winter is a very different person to interact with compared with Alfie Higgins, for instance. I find baby name lists from previous decades incredibly useful when choosing names for my child characters – try The ONS or this interactive tool. In a totally fictional world, names are a brilliant shortcut when world building. If instead of saying can opener, you call it a cannibaliser then that could imbue the environment with a certain gallows humour. Call it an aluminium cylinder dissection device and you make a very different impression.
  • Familiarity – This is a double-edged sword. I want the reader to feel comfortable with the name I've chosen, but I don't want to choose a word or phrase that reminds them strongly of another book or film. This is a particular issue when choosing a title, of course – I don't want there to be another very similar book popping up on Amazon every time someone searches for mine. When naming companies or brands, it can be quite hard to find one that someone hasn't used already, and obviously you have to be careful not to write anything (even if it is fictional) that could cause someone to sue you – especially when you didn't mean to defame them.
  • Contrast – A lot of fun can be had by setting up names in deliberate contrast with each other. No dystopian saga would be complete without its two opposing sides – The Perfect and The Broken or The Powerful and The Weak. Names can also be contrasted - give the protagonist a really boring everychild name to reflect the world from which they're trying to escape (Harry Potter anyone?) while bestowing other characters with more colourful epithets. Or how about having a really flamboyant character who has decided to be that way to escape the expectation of a boring name? Parents can often be cruel with naming, and that must inevitably affect the child – the film director Duncan Jones makes very different films than you would have expected if he'd stuck with his birth name (which was Zowie Bowie!)
  • Believability – The extent to which a name is believable depends of the context into which I'm placing it. In a broad, slapstick comedy novel, the characters will all have broad, slapstick names (except for the straight man, naturally). In a gripping work of contemporary political fiction, everyone will have very mundane, serious (and slightly posh) names, and spend a lot of time swilling a double Glenfiddich around the glass while musing on constitutional democracy (yawn). Sound also has a big role in believability – can I picture someone actually saying that word? Or would they burst out laughing?

For me, sorting out the names of my elements upfront is the equivalent of making a strong opening in a game of chess. It gets some niggling decisions out of the way early, and lets me decide on the tone and direction of the game to come. I also know something about all of the pieces in play, which helps me to second-guess the conflicts that will inevitably arise.

But then again, perhaps you work completely differently? I'd love to know.



  1. I steal wallets and use the names on the credit cards.

  2. Great blog post! This is all very true. I love names and naming things. I usually just steal ruthlessly from anyone that crosses my path. I love names that really fit - they have to satisfy all your points but also they usually have some extra slice of meaning for me because I know where I found them. In this book I've named supporting characters after an old friend, a cousin, a cool-sounding bird, a friend of a friend who came up in conversation at just the right moment, and a character from Doctor Who. My hero has been a lot harder to nail down, and I'm still not sure I've got it right...

  3. I'm terrible at naming things. When we named our children we had to flip through a phonebook.

    1. Actually, phonebooks are brilliant for finding surnames for characters. But I'm not sure I'd recommend them for your own offspring...

  4. I agree with Rosie, as my character names "usually have some extra slice of meaning for me because I know where I found them" - I am using (slightly distorted versions of) four names from W Shakespeare, two from K Vonnegut, plus a Hollywood film director (but only his first name - he'll never guess...)